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Technology You Should Be Paying Attention to: 3D Printing

Friday, October 12th, 2012 by Cody Burke
Makerbot Replicator 2

Makerbot Replicator 2

One of the most exciting up-and-coming technologies today is 3D printing. If it sounds like science fiction, that is because, in many ways, it is. The technique builds 3D objects, layer by layer, through a variety of methods. At its most basic level, imagine a hot glue gun that can move on two horizontal axes, as well as vertically, squirting small drops of glue to build up an object one layer at a time. More complex types of 3D printing use powder that is solidified by an ink jet printer head loaded with binding material, or even a solution of liquid resin that is solidified by a laser beam.

The technology itself is not new; indeed, it has been around since the 1980s, and, up until recently, it was more commonly known as rapid prototyping. It is a form of additive manufacturing, which is distinct from the more common subtractive manufacturing since instead of taking a block of material and removing mass to shape an object, it starts with nothing, and adds material to create the object.

Recently, due to an explosion of consumer-level interest in the technology, 3D printing has been getting serious mainstream attention. The darling and established market leader of the consumer 3D printing movement, MakerBot, started selling DIY 3D printer kits in 2009, and has expanded rapidly, receiving a $10 million venture capital investment from the Foundry Group in August 2011. Since then, the company has released two versions of its Replicator line of 3D printers aimed at the “prosumer” market, and opened the first 3D printing retail store in Manhattan. Between 2009 and 2011, the company’s printers accounted for 16% of the market; in 2011 alone they accounted for 21.6%.

The largest players in the field are 3D Systems and Stratasys. They are established public companies with diversified operations that cover medical, industrial, architectural, design prototyping, and 3D scanning. Both have been aggressively acquiring smaller companies to build out their technology portfolios and move into new markets. 3D Systems is the overall market leader in terms of revenue ($288.9 million as of June 2012) and grew by 41.7% and 44.1% in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Stratasys comparatively, achieved revenue of $177.9 million for the same period.

In addition to making and selling hardware, a market has emerged around providing 3D print services. Shapeways and Ponoko are two companies occupying this space, both have established online marketplaces (similar to eBay or Esty), where designers upload 3D designs that can be ordered for prototyping purposes or purchased directly by their customers. The companies handle the 3D printing and shipping, eliminating the need for designers to ever touch the product, or invest in the high-end 3D printing equipment that is used.

The ever increasing level of press that 3D printing technology has been receiving has its own dangers. Gartner placed the technology at the peak of its 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, predicting that overinflated expectations of what is technologically possible will lead to a slump in the market, before eventual slow but steady growth emerges as practical applications are found.

The attention the technology is receiving is considerable; it seems that not a day goes by without a major publication covering some aspect of the industry, including a series of stories about the potential (good headline material but overblown) to manufacture a gun in your home using the technology. Potential applications that earn headlines include printing organs, mass copyright and patent violations, the death of the global supply chain, printing in space, etc, etc, etc. The list is endless, but many of these use cases are years away from being viable.

Nonetheless, the future of 3D printing is bright (perhaps literally so, as Disney research has developed a way to print optics in light bulbs). A reality check on the limitations of the technology and an adjustment of expectations may be in order, but have no doubt; 3D printing will be one of the great technology storylines for years to come.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

If Technology Makes Us Dumber, Why Are We Getting Smarter?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Downloading higher IQ in 3, 2, 1...

We often think of Information Overload as sapping our intelligence and decreasing our reasoning powers, but, starting in the early 1900s and continuing to the present day, Americans who have taken standardized IQ tests have gained on average three points per decade. Despite claims that texting and Twitter have watered down literacy and the ability of young people to write, research from Stanford that covered writing samples from 2001-2006 shows that students were writing far more than previous generations did. Perhaps as significantly, the study found that they were adept at tailoring their style for a specific audience (i.e. no emoticons in a class essay).

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James A. Flynn, explains an interesting theory about the reasons behind this. Flynn is the researcher and creator of the Flynn effect, which first acknowledged the trend of rising IQ scores. He notes in his recent article Are We Really Getting Smarter? that one of the main differences between us and our forebears is how the modern world we live in both embraces the hypothetical and values classification. We tend to look for what traits things have in common (as opposed to what traits are different), and are willing and able to imagine possible outcomes.

These differences make us better suited for exercises such as IQ tests that measure the ability to analyze and extrapolate patterns, or use logic to determine the answer to a hypothetical question. Treating hypothetical situations as legitimate thought experiments also enables a writer to visualize his audience and shift tone and style appropriately.

Of course, higher scores on IQ tests alone don’t mean that we are necessarily smarter. Interestingly enough, it seems that we are continuing to improve the specific skill sets that the tests measure, not by studying for the test, but in natural reaction to changes in our environment. In a sense, our mental abilities are evolving by chance in the same direction as the way the tests were originally created.

Information Overload, although detrimental in a variety of documented ways, in this case may not be so bad. Our fast-paced world throws so much information at us on a daily basis that learning how to classify incoming data is a critical survival skill. Given how many different ideas we are exposed to through media, the Internet, and our hyper-connected social lives, it is no surprise that our ability to conflate concepts and scenarios to create hypothetical situations is growing stronger.

The downside of Information Overload is clear: shortened attention spans, lost time and productivity, Internet addiction, and health issues. Nonetheless, there may be a few positive benefits from the barrage of information we receive today, at least as far as IQ scores are concerned.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

We Are Talking And Singing on Mars Now

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by Cody Burke
Rendering of Curiosity Rover

Rendering of Curiosity Rover

The sheer volume of information and content that is produced on Earth is mind numbing. For example, over 35 hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube every minute. But earthly boundaries aren’t enough. Now, we are accepting submissions from the red planet.

Robotic rovers and satellites have been sent to Mars before. They have gathered images, video, and other data from the planet and sent them back to Earth. Now, for the first time, Earth has received our own voices, broadcast from Mars.

The Curiosity Rover, NASA’s most recent visitor to the surface of Mars, last week broadcast the first human words from another planet. A statement read by Charles Bolden, administrator of NASA, was transmitted to Curiosity, and then back to NASA’s Deep Space Network facility on Earth. The message thanked all of the individuals who worked on the Curiosity mission, and is the first time a recorded human voice has traveled between another planet and Earth.

Not content to stop there, NASA then proceeded to make history once again by broadcasting the first song from another planet, “Reach for the Stars,” an original song by Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame and technology enthusiast.

Impressive work for a robot that can only broadcast at 10,000 bps, or ca. one 10 megapixel image per day. Indeed, Curiosity’s speed is on par with a 1984 computer modem.

Curiosity is also very active on Twitter (@MarsCuriosity), with over 1 million followers, and an irreverent style of tweeting that frequently references dance moves. Sample tweet: “1st drive complete! This is how I roll: forward 3 meters, 90º turn, then back. Electric slide, anyone?”

What NASA has demonstrated with Curiosity thus far shows both scientific advancement pushing the boundaries of what can be transmitted between planets, and also a social savvy that is engaging and exciting space fans and non-fans alike.

(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Advertising to the Robots: Marketing Dollars Well Spent?

Thursday, August 9th, 2012 by Cody Burke
Facebook like button

The robot approves this message

Something strange is going on with social advertising. Two interesting stories in the past few weeks offer contrasting views: Google is buying social ad startup Wildfire, while in a different corner of the Internet, one company is pulling its social ads from Facebook after alleging that only 20% of clicks on its ads were from humans.

The optimistic view first. Google’s acquisition of software developer Wildfire will allow the company to deliver software and services to brands for running social marketing and ad campaigns on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. Wildfire was Google’s second choice; the company bid on Buddy Media earlier this year but lost out to Salesforce. Interestingly, Wildfire only offers ads through its partner Adaptly, somewhat limiting the utility of the company’s offerings, although that is subject to change after the acquisition.

Google will enter the social ad space through the acquisition, and will be soon positioned to not only sell services on its own Google+ platform, but also to provide its customers with marketing tools that can be used on other companies’ platforms, which of course would include Facebook.

But back to the pessimistic view of social ads. Facebook has stumbled as of late, with its share price nearly 45% below its initial $38 per share IPO price on May 18. Concerns about slowing user growth and the lack of an effective mobile strategy are spooking investors. Just days before the IPO, General Motors pulled the $10 million it was spending on Facebook ads, citing a failure of the ads to impact consumer purchases.

Now, Limited Run, a music industry-focused e-commerce startup, is pulling its ads from Facebook as well. The company claims that, through running analytics of who is clicking on their Facebook ads, they have determined that nearly 80% of clicks are from automated bots, not real human potential customers. To experiment, Limited Run tried ad campaigns on various other social platforms and came up with the same results, only 15%-20% of clicks could be verified as coming from flesh and blood humans.

In July, the BBC conducted an experiment by setting up a fake company on Facebook, VirtualBagel. The BBC team set up some ads and then left it alone to see what would develop. Within 24 hours, the fake company had over 1,600 likes, and within a week, the company had 3,000. After analyzing the data, it was observed that the majority of the likes came from profiles of 13-17 year old Egyptians with suspiciously similar and sometimes outright contradictory profile information, indicating the presence of nonhuman profiles. For its part, Facebook admits that 9%, or ca. 54 million, of its profiles are fake, and that number is nothing to sneeze at in a market where every advertising dollar counts.

For Google, now entering directly into the social ad space, it is critical to not only solve the automated bot problem, but demonstrate the clear value of social ads. Social everything has been hyped beyond belief, and as we are seeing with the ill-fortunes of Facebook’s falling stock value, there may be some value in being anti-social, at least for advertising.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Office 2013: Microsoft Goes All In On Mobile And The Cloud

Friday, July 20th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Will this office cloud be different?

Microsoft unveiled the latest version of its flagship desktop productivity suite this week, and took aim at more than a few of its challengers (namely Apple and Google) in the industry with new features and functionality.

Essentially, the three main areas that Microsoft is using to separate itself from potential competitors are cloud storage, mobile access, and new features via integrations.  There is a host of other new bells and whistles, but from a strategic standpoint, the really key developments in the new release focus on improvements in those areas.

Microsoft has tightly tied Office 2013 with its SkyDrive cloud storage offering, allowing automatic synching and access to files from any computer.  The suite will ship with the SkyDrive app, which enables synching of files between multiple devices and the cloud drive.  Hopefully, this can help prevent a major problem in document management, namely that of losing track of multiple versions of documents.

Office 2013 will also be available via Office 365, the company’s cloud-based subscription version of the suite.  Unlike previous iterations of Office 365, which were based completely on cloud access, users will be able to download the full applications to multiple computers, which will all synch files via the SkyDrive.

Microsoft started down this road with Office 2010, when the company introduced basic browser-based versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.  Today, the goal is to keep users and business from being tempted by Google’s productivity offerings, which were built from the ground up with cloud access in mind, and from Apple’s iCloud services, which offer content synching for its popular iOS devices.

In the mobile arena, Office 2013 (as well as the upcoming Windows 8 operating system) has been optimized for touch interfaces and tablets with relativity small interface changes such as having the ribbon disappear when not in use, thus preserving screen real estate, and the addition of a full onscreen numeric keypad for working in Excel.  According to early reviews (full disclosure, I have not used it), the onscreen keyboard functions well, and the touch gestures that are introduced in Windows 8 make using Office 2013 apps on a tablet a viable option instead of it being an emergency back-up plan.

Further addressing the mobile market, Office 2013 comes in a version that will run on ARM chip-based devices, such as the base model of the company’s recently announced Surface tablet.  The Office 2013 RT version is to be included on future ARM chip-based tablets running Windows 8 RT.  Surprisingly, no iPad version of Office 2013 was announced, although rumors persist that Microsoft is working on bringing the suite to iOS.

Integration with collaborative tools also play a main role in Office 2013.  Social networking functionality from Yammer, a company Microsoft recently acquired, will be bundled into the suite to introduce activity streams and document sharing into the applications.  Microsoft has also announced that it will leverage technology from Skype to provide presence functionality within its Lync communications platform.

Due to its long history in the desktop productivity space and its extremely large established user base, at this time, Microsoft still appears to be the most capable of the major technology players to deliver a complete desktop productivity offering.  It is also clear that the company is not resting on its laurels and that with Office 2013 it is betting big on a future of computing that values cloud access and mobility (a vision that Apple and Google have already embraced).  We will report back with a full review of the new features of the applications soon.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Google X Lab Hunts YouTube for Cats

Friday, June 29th, 2012 by Cody Burke
feral cat in Virginia

That computer is watching me...

When left to its own devices, what does one of the largest neural networks for machine learning in the world use its 16,000 computer processors and one billion connections do? Solve complex environmental problems? Crunch scientific data to illuminate the mysteries of deep space? No and no. Turns out, the huge, powerful neural network taught itself to recognize cats (and humans) in only three days.

Researchers from Google and Stanford working at Google’s secretive X Lab connected 16,000 processors (still far short of a human’s estimated 80 billion neurons) and fed the neural network digital images extracted at random from 10 million YouTube videos. The machine was then left alone to learn what it could with no instruction on how to proceed. For three days, the network pored through the images, making connections and finding commonalities between objects. Next, the researchers attempted to see what the computer could identify from a list of 20,000 items.

By learning from the most commonly occurring images the computer was able to achieve an 81.7% accuracy rating in identifying human faces, 76.7% accuracy at identifying human body parts, and 74.8 percent accuracy when identifying cats. The increases represent a 70% jump in accuracy compared to previous studies.

The network constructed a rough image of what a cat would look like by extracting general features as it was exposed to the 10 million images, in much the same way that a human brain uses repeated firing of specific neurons in the visual cortex to train itself to recognize a particular face. What the experiment proved is that it is possible for the computer to learn what something is without it being labeled; the neural network created the concept of both humans and cats without being prompted.

Machine learning lies in the use of algorithms to allow computers to evolve behavior based on data by recognizing complex problems and making intelligent, data-based decisions. The problem is that when faced with complex problems with large data sets, it is next to impossible for all possible variables to be covered, so the system must generalize from the data it has. In the case of the cats, Google’s neural network was able to generalize what humans and cats look like with relatively high accuracy.

The potential applications of this kind of neural network are broad. Speech and facial recognition, as well as translation software would benefit from machine learning that only requires vast amounts of data with no hints or guidance from human operators. The current Big Data movement is providing huge quantities of data, and it is encouraging to know that there may be actual applications for it.

Reflecting the confidence that Google has in the project, the company is moving the neural network research out of X Lab and into its division charged with search and related services. Expect to see larger neural networks with even higher accuracy rates constructed in the near future. Hopefully we can move on to using them for something more important… perhaps even recognizing dogs?

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

(Photo: Stavrolo)

Microsoft Gets in the Tablet Game

Thursday, June 21st, 2012 by Cody Burke
Microsoft Surface

What am I? Tablet or laptop?

Against the backdrop of continued Apple dominance of the tablet market, Microsoft has thrown its hat in the ring with the Microsoft Surface. The new tablet comes in two models, a slimmed down version running Windows RT, (the company’s simplified mobile Windows for tablets) and a professional offering that runs full Windows 8. Both enter a crowded but lopsided tablet market where the iPad dominates the full size tablet space and a confusing plethora of Android tablets fight for the scraps.

Taking cues from Apple, Microsoft staged the announcement with much secrecy leading up to the event, and by all accounts, put on a good show for the eager crowd. This is Microsoft’s first attempt to build its own tablet hardware; the company is currently relying on third party hardware developers to release multiple upcoming Windows 8 tablets. Microsoft’s last attempt to take over hardware design on its own and do battle with Apple was the ill-fated Zune. The Zune, despite getting positive reviews for its design and functionality, never gained enough marketshare and now only lives on as software.

Although the new Surface tablets looked good in the demos, there are many questions remaining about the devices. What we do know is that both models feature a 10.6”, 16:9 “ClearType” 1920 x 1080 display, front and rear-facing cameras, an SD slot, USB port, magnesium casing, Gorilla Glass, and a kickstand for landscape view. Wi-Fi is enabled via a 2×2 MIMO antenna. The Surface for Windows RT is 9.3 mm thick (the iPad is 9.4 mm), weighs .68 kg, and runs on an ARM processor. It runs Metro apps, so it will deliver a mobile experience comparable to competing Android tablets and the iPad.

The Surface also features a pressure-sensitive keyboard hidden in the tablet’s cover, called Type Cover. When closed, the cover looks similar to the iPad’s Smart Cover, but when open, a full keyboard is revealed on the inside. Using the tablet’s kickstand allows the screen to be propped up in landscape orientation with the keyboard rolled out in front, approximating the experience of working on an Ultrabook or netbook.

Most intriguing is the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, which runs full Windows 8 on an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 x86 processor. It is slightly thicker at 13.5 mm, adds a USB 3.0 port, and is available with either 64 or 128 GB of storage. The critical point about the professional Surface tablet is that it is essentially a full-featured PC in a tablet form factor. When combined with the Type Cover, the Surface is almost bypassing the iPad to go up against the MacBook Air and other Ultrabooks (for better or worse). If the typing experience is good, that is a win for Microsoft as it adds functionality that the iPad currently lacks and allows it to attempt to woo mobile workers. If Type Cover turns out to be gimmicky and not suited for real work, then the Surface will remain in the tablet arena.

Running a full version of Windows 8 allows the device to run Office, Photoshop, or any other professional desktop application. Not having to depend on mobile apps could be a game changer, particularly since Windows 8 has been designed from the ground up as a touch-screen friendly iteration of Windows. Past Windows tablets have struggled with trying to squeeze the desktop metaphor onto a touchscreen tablet, with poor results.

The question now is who will actually buy the Surface. The base model may struggle to compete with Android tablets and the iPad unless it truly brings something new to the tablet experience (I’m not sure the fold out keyboard will be enough). The professional model however, if it does indeed provide a full Windows 8 workspace and the ability to run desktop applications, may be able to differentiate itself from the iPad in ways that the BlackBerry Playbook, HP TouchPad, and the legions of Android tablets have not been able to.

Regardless, the Surface is a significant and bold move for Microsoft, and you have to respect the audacity of going up against the dominant iPad, and maybe, just maybe, coming out ahead on some features. For Microsoft’s (and the consumers’) sake, lets hope that the Surface is not a repeat of the Zune.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Music and Productivity: All About Context

Thursday, June 7th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Must find the right song for the task at hand...

Last week Jonathan Spira explored the possibility of music being a distracting influence on knowledge workers. Although there is some truth to that, music is a topic that engenders such passion that getting knowledge workers (or anyone) to give it up would almost surely incite rebellion. A more nuanced approach is to find what works for the specific individual.

Music’s relationship to productivity is extremely complex and varies based on context. Factors such as the specific task being performed, individual preference of the knowledge worker, and the tempo and genre of the music make a huge difference.

To start with, research conducted in 2005 by the University of Windsor in Canada concluded that any increase in productivity from music may be related to the positive feelings that individuals get from that music. Essentially, people who listen to music that they like, feel better about themselves, and thus do better work. Forcing people to listen to music they don’t like, or forcing them to not listen to music at all could have the opposite result. The critical point is that people feel better when they listen to music they like.

The tempo and genre of the music is extremely relevant to any discussion of the impact of music on productivity. In my former career, I was a professional chef. In busy restaurant kitchens, I found it is essential to have fast-paced, aggressive music playing, preferably at loud volumes. Electronic dance music, heavy metal, and hip hop all worked well. The music would set the pace for the cooks and provide just the right amount of distraction that allowed everyone to relax, let muscle memory take over, and fall into a “zone.”

Although the music worked for us, it didn’t always work for others. Frequently, waiters would complain that they found the loud, fast-paced music distracting. Although perhaps this was simply a matter of personal taste, it also is important to consider that they were doing a completely different job – and using a different part of their brains. They had to remember orders, talk to customers, and generally be attentive to other human beings. We cooks needed to put our heads down and dig our way out of a rapidly growing hole by performing practiced, repetitive motions within a tightly knit team, often for hours on end. Different job requirements equal different musical needs.

In my current life as a writer and technology analyst, I work for the most part without music. It helps being in my home office, so I do not have to try to drown out background noise from co-workers, but for the most part I write and think more effectively with only ambient house noise. However, when I am faced with a repetitive task under a deadline, I revert to my cooking days and play mainly electronic dance music, although not as loudly as I used to. I’m getting old, I suppose. The beat sets a nice pace and keeps my brain moving quickly.

Context matters, and there is no one-size fits all answer when pondering how music impacts productivity. Find what works for you and enjoy it.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Better Innovation Through Chemistry?

Friday, May 25th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Prime your mind to see the future

Innovating is hard work. Even just solving day-to-day problems can often be a challenge, particularly when the tasks are complex and time sensitive, or have multiple uncertainties.

To be at our mental best requires multiple factors to come together at just the right time. Just enough sleep, but not too much. Just the right amount of stress to push us, but not to overwhelm us. A quiet work space, but maybe a slight bit of background noise to drown out other distractions. The list goes on and on, and I think we all can agree that when we are faced with a challenging problem, we do not often have the luxury of saying, “Wait, I need to go take a nap, chill out a bit, and get my mind in order.” We live and work in an on-demand, 24/7 state of connectivity and interaction.

At a workshop I attended, hosted by IEA (Idea Engineering Agency), co-founder Araceli Camargo-Kilpatrick presented her research and methods for encouraging innovation. Camargo-Kilpatrick’s approach is via neuroscience, and is heavily rooted in understanding the balance of chemicals in the brain and the impact they have on our mental capabilities.

The premise is not complicated: essentially our most powerful problem solving mechanisms are hidden away in our subconscious, working behind the scenes at their own pace and beyond our direct control. The trick is to understand how to prime one’s mind on a chemical level to increase dopamine (provides feelings of reward and motivation) and oxytocin (lowers stress levels). The theory is that by doing this our brain is more able to relax and tap into its powerful problem solving capabilities. Methods to prime the brain include exercise, music, visualization, and, perhaps most intriguing to me, breaking old patterns and establishing new routines before starting new projects.

Assuming the mind is primed, Camargo-Kilpatrick breaks down innovation into a series of steps, although she cautions that innovation is not a point A to point B process, but more of a spiral of problem solving, adjusting, and questioning. The first step is to explore the environment of the problem being solved. By understanding all the possible factors and the lay of the land, we mentally relax because we have prepared ourselves and will not be surprised by unexpected influences. For example, if the problem is to try to limit distractions in the workplace, then it is necessary to understand every possible distraction, as well as the day-to-day activities and habits of the workers.

The next step is observation, simply asking good questions. Forming a hypothesis or trying to answer the questions at this stage is discouraged, as the questions, at least in the beginning, are likely to be very general and not very helpful. By refining the questions, the problem will become clearer. This leads into Camargo-Kilpatrick’s next two stages, which are to first clearly define the real problem, and then define the parameters. In our example, the real problem may be the incorrect use of tools such as e-mail and instant messenger, and the parameters may be “when doing focused work on a project.” Being open to modifying the problem is critical, as assumptions must be questioned at every step of the process.

After defining the problem and the parameters, the next phase is to analyze the impact of every factor. Understanding the impact of e-mail on distractions, as well as its impact on other areas of work aids in building a model of the environment, which helps to foresee any ripple effects from making changes. For example, if e-mail is only checked twice a day, that would limit time spent in the inbox, but it may lead to an increase in instant messaging, which would in itself be a distraction. Camargo-Kilpatrick represents innovation and problem solving as the equation Y=F(x). The problem being solved is Y, and x is any factor. Thus distractions are a function of e-mail, but they are also a function of instant messenger, phone calls, etc. Only by looking at the whole picture can the problem be effectively addressed.

The combination of putting oneself into the proper frame of mind and using a methodical system to solve problems is not a new or groundbreaking concept. However, the work that Camargo-Kilpatrick is doing by applying neuroscience to find ways to jumpstart innovation is. We have so much knowledge about the world yet seem to understand so little about how we function; this is welcome research and innovation in its own right.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

In the briefing room: AwayFind

Friday, April 6th, 2012 by Cody Burke

In the top right of the screen shot, the user has selected to be alerted via the AwayFind iPhone app.

The only thing worse than getting too much e-mail is not getting the e-mail messages you really need.  Missing an important e-mail message can have far-ranging implications, but the only way to 100% guarantee you won’t let one slip by is to essentially live in your inbox.  Doing that is not an appealing proposition but you won’t be surprised to hear that countless knowledge workers do just that.

The detrimental impact of e-mail overload has been very well documented, here and elsewhere, and the damage occasioned by the constant stream of interruptions resulting from constantly monitoring one’s inbox is fairly self-evident.  Too much e-mail makes it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, and revisiting the inbox every five minutes to see if anything critical has arrived is not conducive to focused, quality work.  Some experts, including Nathan Zeldes, president of the Information Overload Research Group, recommend only checking your e-mail a few times a day, at scheduled times.  Not a bad idea, but what about the e-mail with critical information that comes in right before a meeting on the topic, or the urgent e-mail that requires immediate attention?

AwayFind is a solution that attempts to bring a sense of balance to this challenge by allowing users to define what e-mail is critical and designating an alternative method of contact.  The concept is based on the idea that only specific e-mail messages are really important at a given time, such as one from a co-worker you share a project with as you near a deadline, or a customer you are finalizing a deal with.  AwayFind allows users to set up alerts for e-mail that is pushed out via a phone call, SMS, instant message, or notifications in an iPhone or Android app.

AwayFind uses a mix of automated rules for alerting users, as well as customizable rules for select time periods.  For example, the system monitors a user’s calendar, and notifies them if an e-mail from someone who has a meeting scheduled has arrived.

For setting up custom alerts, AwayFind allows the user to pick a sender or domain name, and then specify a time slot.  This enables a user to stay away from his inboxe and, for example, go out for lunch knowing that if the one person that he’s waiting for important information from sends an e-mail message, he will be notified.

AwayFind is an innovative idea and works on two distinct levels.  On one level, the tool has potential to be used as a filter for the inbox.  This would allow important messages to get through, while relieving the pressure of wading through the spam and non-critical messages that clog up the typical inbox.  Setting up rules for who is important, and recognizing that priorities change and must be adjusted, is a really valuable feature.

On another level, the product is significant because of the way it pushes notifications through numerous other channels.  This is interesting because it shows AwayFind understands that individuals make different choices in communications tools.  Some knowledge workers live in instant messaging environments, while others find that disruptive and instead prefer phone calls or texts.  Virtually all knowledge workers these days carry smartphones, and many already rely on apps running on those devices for everything from social network updates to calendaring notifications.  In theory, using AwayFind would allow knowledge workers to wean themselves off of the inbox and allow only the most important e-mail to get through, via the communications channel that they prefer.  Of course, this would also require knowledge workers to turn off new e-mail notifications from their e-mail client

For most knowledge workers, using AwayFind will not completely substitute for checking their inbox.  Too many random messages still come in everyday that we all have to comb through, and the ramifications of missing them can be severe (we also seem to actually like checking our e-mail, or at least feel compelled to).  What a tool such as AwayFind can do if used properly, is make it possible to check our inboxes far less frequently.  And that is no small feat.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com